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Saturday, May 7, 2011

Liberal Party: Uncertain Future

After the 1953 election, when facing a united Right, the Liberals only won more non-Québec seats than the Conservatives twice: 1968 (Trudeaumania) and 2004 (Right still gluing pieces together).

If the Liberals want to become a party of government again, it will have to regain Québec (unless the Right self-destructs again...). That's not too hard to imagine: if the NDP's performance as Official Opposition is unsatisfactory - this first week has pretty much been a disaster - and if the separatists decide to disband the Bloc and focus on the PQ, then the Liberals have a chance of getting Québec back in 2015.

Still, it's equally easy to imagine a scenario where the NDP becomes Québec's default party for several elections. If the Bloc manages to find a bit of money, it could also win Quebecers back next time. Moreover, if Stephen Harper steps down in, say, 2014, and the Tories find a more moderate leader, they'd have a shot at Québec as well.

At this point, all of the following seem plausible to me:

- Québec stays with the NDP for several elections, and the Liberals become a permanent third party, sometimes wielding the balance of power when the Left and Right are equally matched;

- Québec stays with the NDP for several elections, and the Liberal Party disintegrates, leaving Canada with a two-party system;

- Québec returns to the Liberals, and we are back to the situation of the 60s and 70s, but with the Tories stronger due to the increased weight of the West;

- Québec picks the Tories or Bloc in 2015, and the Liberals and NDP, two severely weakened parties, have no choice but to merge;

- Québec sticks with the NDP, but the Liberals regain the GTA in 2015, and a merger/coalition is considered.

All of the above assume that Québec does not hold a separation referendum where Yes support exceeds 50%. However, it is a real possibility that the PQ wins the next provincial election during a period of widespread discontent with an ideologically incompatible federal government. If the PQ can stoke the sentiment that Québec is being oppressed by a majority imposed by Ontario and the West, it may yet get a majority of the votes in a referendum. If that happens:

- in case of a "clear" majority, game over, Québec secedes - this is very unlikely;

- otherwise, all hell breaks loose: separatists will want to hold yet another referendum, or worse, unilaterally declare independence; Tories will be seriously questioned about potentially "losing the country"; the NDP will face large internal dissent; the Bloc might be back stronger than ever, totally withdraw from Ottawa, or both (win 50+ seats in 2015 and have its MPs not show up). For the Liberals, the implication would be very murky: it might be the party Canada turns to in order to sort out this mess, or might be pushed into complete oblivion as all of the attention is focused on the others.

All this to say that at this point, virtually anything could happen to the Liberal Party. Its best chance of averting oblivion is Québec, but whether it'll even get a chance depends more on how the other parties - NDP, Tories, PQ - perform than on what it does. For this reason, what appears to be the Liberal strategy of lying low for now seems like a good one.


Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure it's a good idea for them to lie low. All of the parties other than the CPC are very close in policies, much closer than any but the very bluest Liberals are to the CPC. Given that 60% of the vote went to parties other than CPC, I think a believeable strategy would be a concerted effort to merge or at least coalesce in the interests of forming a true majority government next time around. They've got at least 4 years to get their act together, and it's going to take every available minute to make it work. Why is Harper so publicly worried about his opposition uniting? Because he did it himself, and look where that's got us. Time for him to be handed back his own strategy.

Election Watcher said...

The problem with a merger at this point is that neither party seems interested. Most Liberals seem cool to that idea, and Broadbent categorically ruled it out yesterday. I'd also add that the platforms were only similar very recently - certainly the Liberals' spending-cutting and then tax-cutting policies in the 90s had nothing to do with the NDP's desires.

I think it'll take more time before a merger can happen. The NDP now thinks it might kill the Liberals. The Liberals want to rebuild the party and see what happens before throwing in the towel - the NDP's performance in the past week certainly makes them think the Dippers could burn themselves.

After all, it took three consecutive Liberal majorities for the Reform/Alliance and PC to merge - and they had been together for several decades previously...

I think the argument in favour of a merger now revolves around Harper: he is so abrasive that many blue Liberals that would otherwise defect might decide to stick with the merged party. If the CPC had a more moderate leader, I could see a big chunk of the Liberal vote going blue.